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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Larger Than Real Life Characters

This weekend while writing in a coffee shop, I was distracted by real life characters. The people around me, like this guy who greeted this girl with three kisses. His wife? Girl friend? I watched how they talked and interacted. How they were overly considerate and accommodating to each other’s needs. They were obviously dating, or newly married! But they were fairly normal. Nothing special about their interactions, so I went back to my writing.

Then I noticed the guy who came into the coffee shop panting, a backpack slung over his gray sweatshirt that was ripped at the shoulder and soaked, his pants tattered at the cuff. He grabbed the free water, sweat dripping from his forehead, and hunched over just a bit…obviously overheated. I watched him out of the corner of my eye. He downed the water, filled his cup again, and set his backpack by the computer, telling the barrista he’d order something…but in a bit. I wondered…who is this guy? What’s his story?

He looked out of place in a yuppy coffee shop, but ordered a frozen drink. Was he homeless? I didn’t think a homeless person would spend $5 on a drink. Down on his luck? Maybe. Running from an axe murderer? Probably not. So why was he there? Where had he just come from? And why was he wearing a sweat shirt on a 100 degree day?

This is the second time in two weeks in two different coffee shops that I’ve witnessed an out of place, larger-than-real-life character that made me stop and ask, “What’s his story?”

In “Writing the Break Out Novel,” Donald Maass talks about larger-than-life character qualities. He says, “A larger-than-life character is someone who says, does, and thinks things that we would like to but never dare. This does not necessarily mean turning your characters into wise-crackers or pulp clichés. It does mean pushing them out of their own bounds, whatever those might be.”

It also means putting them in out of the ordinary situations.

Those are the kind of characters and stories people like to read about and those are the characters we need to write. The affectionate couple in the corner were ordinary. I gave them a once over, then moved on.

I. Moved. On.

To something more interesting. Someone more interesting.

How do you create larger-than-life characters so your readers can’t move on, but are compelled to ask “What’s his story?” 

Gina Conroy, a.k.a. "the other Gina," is a new monthly contributor to Novel Rocket. She's the founder of Writer...Interrupted and is still learning how to balance a career with raising a family. She is represented by Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary, and her first novella, Buried Deception, in the Cherry Blossom Capers Collection, releases from Barbour Publishing in January 2012.


  1. People are fascinating to watch and even more fascinating to speculate over. I remember waiting in a line one day to register for some classes I was taking at our community college. By the time it was my turn, I had written at least five plot outlines for the characters I saw around me. The best research is sometimes done away from the computer.

  2. I think a character is interesting when we can like them, but not like some of the choices that the make. That keeps us guessing what they'll do next.

  3. really fantastic examples- and important to keep in mind when creating characters. You have me curious about the sweat shirt wearing guy with the knapsack! lol

  4. Karen, people are fun to watch! Great use of time waiting in line!

    Dina, I agree. Without characters and their poor choices, their journey gets boring and predictable!

  5. Great post!! The coolest thing about people watching is getting to do it with a bunch of writers. It's amazing what we can come up with collectively, and a little scary!! Great post, Gina!!

  6. I love this post and thinking about this. I try to show how my character affects other characters--what impact he or she has on the life of another character or characters--physically, emotionally, spiritually. I think that makes them memorable. In "Promise Me This" I have a character who dies on Titanic, but because of who he is and what he is, his "legacy" impacts the lives of all the other characters throughout the book.

  7. Creepy Q, I'm curious as well! But I'm sure a fictionalized version of the sweat shirt guy's story is better than the truth.

  8. Loved this, Gina! I took Donald's advice and the main character in my new series does something I wish I could do in real life. It's so much fun to write her! And the discovery of what happens when we force them to do something they would never do willingly is worth the hair-pulling to make them actually do it! LOL


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